Skeptic's guide to Tennessee's 2022 football season
No one does doom and gloom like Tennessee fans.
But can you blame them?
When Lane Kiffin bolted and left a burning Knoxville in his wake in January 2010, that started Tennessee athletics on a very dark road. On-field struggles were compounded with off-the-field ineptitude. It wasn’t a positive time.
Only recently has it appeared that UT is snapping out of that funk. Baseball is dominant. Men’s basketball won the SEC Tournament. Women’s basketball will be a Final Four contender again next season. And the football team is finally giving Vols fans reason to feel good about the direction of the program.
That said, there is always the fear that the other shoe is going to drop, and the bad times are going to return.
ESPN’s Football Power Index predicts that the Vols will win 7 games in the 2022 regular season, matching their total from 2021.
Can the Vols get to 7 again? Maybe. But here are some reasons they might fall short.
1. Tough schedule
The schedule isn’t as brutal as it has been in the past, but there are sinkholes they’ll need to avoid to get to 7 wins.
They still must play Alabama and Georgia, last year’s conference and national title game finalists. The rotating West partner results in a road game at LSU — never easy. The Vols almost always beat Kentucky, but the Wildcats are no longer a pushover. Florida went through a coaching change, but can any Tennessee fans really expect a win over the Gators when they’ve UT has lost 16 of their past 17 in the series?
But for me, the key game is Week 2 at Pittsburgh. Yes, Kenny Pickett moved a few feet away to the Steelers’ end of the building, but the Panthers should still be pretty good with former Southern Cal quarterback Kedon Slovis. Even without all-everything receiver Jordan Addison.
Tennessee sports betting officially launched on November 1, 2020. Tennessee was the first SEC state to legalize sports betting.
Lose that game and getting to 7 wins becomes a trickier deal.
2. Can’t find a No. 2 receiver
A big reason for Tennessee’s success in 2021 was the emergence of Cedric Tillman as their top pass-catching option. He grabbed 64 passes for 1,081 yards and 12 TDs, all team-highs.
Tillman didn’t get the most attention from opposing defenses. That honor went to Velus Jones, Jr., who is now with the Chicago Bears. Jones ended up with 62 catches for 807 yards and 7 TDs.
Tillman and Jones were a dynamic duo. Will anyone step up to make up for Jones’s production?
Jalin Hyatt, Jimmy Calloway and Ramel Keyton are probably the 3 players most likely to fill that void. But there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to make as many big plays as Jones.
Tillman can’t do it alone.
3. Defenses play catch up
There was already a lot of film for defenses to examine with regards to Josh Heupel’s offense. But there’s a big difference between watching and having to play against that speed in person.
Heupel’s rookie season as a head coach in the SEC must be considered a success. But the Vols aren’t a secret anymore. If Tennessee’s opponents have learned anything, especially those UT plays again that have firsthand knowledge of the system from 2021, UT might not put up record-breaking offensive numbers again.
And that could mean fewer victories this fall.
4. Secondary struggles
In 2021, the secondary had its share of issues despite seeing cornerback Alontae Taylor and safety Theo Jackson taken in April’s NFL Draft.
Taylor did not play in the Music City Bowl, and the Vols missed him desperately. Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell threw for a whopping 534 yards.
The Vols ranked 122nd in the nation last year in passing yardage allowed. They also allowed 23 TD passes — only 4 SEC defenses surrendered more.
Part of that is due to being on the field a lot, and defensive backs need the defensive line and linebackers to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
But that unit needs to improve.
5. Hendon Hooker no longer a secret
He wasn’t even the starting quarterback for the 2021 opener. But Hendon Hooker proved to be the Vols’ most valuable player.
No one will underestimate Hooker in 2022. He’s a legitimate Heisman contender. They’ve seen his ability to operate Heupel’s system and how he can take over a game with his arm and feet. He threw for 31 TDs and only tossed 3 interceptions. Those numbers are impossible to repeat.
He won’t sneak up on opponents anymore.
6. The football gods are unkind
We talked a bit about the bad times at Tennessee. Those are never far away, not only for the Vols but really any team if there’s a key injury, a bad bounce or an official’s inadvertent whistle.
Tennessee went 7-6 in 2021, but if they get the benefit of 4th-quarter first-down spots against Pittsburgh and Ole Miss or a favorable forward progress call against Purdue, that win total might have reached double digits. Of course, if Hooker misses JaVonta Payton on the opening play screen against Kentucky, maybe that drive stalls instead of becoming a 75-yard TD in a 3-point win.
The Vols might want to go full Pedro Cerrano to ward off all evil spirits at Neyland Stadium in a few months.
Whatever it takes, right?